Note from Ay-leen: In recognition of Pride Month in the United States, I’d like to thank Lucretia Dearfour for writing about her experiences in the steampunk community.
The first person that we know of to ever go through sexual reassignment surgery was Lili Elbe in 1930, unfortunately her body rejected much of the surgery and she died three month afterward. The first most prominant recipient however was Christine Jørgensen, who received the surgery in 1952 and was then immediately outed to the public as Trans… as “Different.” What is truly amazing to me about Jørgensen’s story is that the first paper to get the scoop and run with it was the New York Daily News on December 1st 1952, and the headline read “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” The headline could have called her a freak of nature, could have foscued on how a man decided one day to be a woman, could have called her a freak or warped the public’s mind in any way shape or form as the first paper to break such a story. What I respect about the article is that it chose to focus on the fact that Jørgensen became a “Blonde Beauty.” It’s vein, it’s vapid, and it still says “He was this, now he’s not a he anymore,” but it does so in such a way that conveys a positive message.
Transgender and gender nonconformist individuals exist to this day. We have existed throughout history and we have only gained strength and prominence as time has gone on with many thanks to trailblazers like Jørgensen. We’ve still got a long, LONG way to go but the future is definitely moving in a very accepting direction for me and mine.
That being said, in Steampunk as well as in a lot of other geek-oriented subcultures I feel (subjectively) that Trans folks are on the whole accepted, though not understood and, at times, not encouraged. This is something that can change, and is en route to change yet at the moment we still deal with a lot of double standard BS that cis-gendered (labeled one gender at birth and has no intention of questioning said gender) folks never need to think about.
I have been told on multiple occasions by multiple people that I am the inspiration for many Steampunks and cosplayers who identify as a gender nonconformist and on a few occasions I have been referred to as the most prominent Trans individual in Steampunk… and yet who the fuck am I? I’m nobody. I don’t mean that I’m sad and that I’m a nobody, far from that. I’m merely saying most people barely know who I am. I feel like the media has a certain view of what Steampunk is and aren’t interested in questioning that. Anything deviating from that perfect Caucasian/Victorian Steampunk would confuse people, would horrify people, or would lose ratings, and that attendees and convention goers can sometimes go through bouts of confusion when it comes to me and my gender identity. I’d like to share a few cautionary tales of some things I have gone through as a trans individual in the convention culture and what we can learn from this.
First and foremost, if you’re already getting angry because Steampunk is a perfect little paradise of acceptance… It can be! One hundred percent! I would say that on the whole I feel INCREDIBLY accepted in the Steampunk community but like everywhere in the world occasionally stupidity exists, so I would like to clear up where the stupidity tends to occur and what one should keep in mind and keep in check while dealing with potential gender-oriented stupidity.
There is a story I tell people about a man who I met at an event, he was a mutual friend and he started referring to me as “The Scottsman.” The first time I laughed it off and said “Actually I’m trans, and a lady, so not Scottsman.” The second time I dropped all expression in my face and said “Please stop referring to me as that.” The third time I had a talk with a mutual friend, explained the situation, and the matter was resolved. This person and I are friends to this day.
There are two ways this situation could/should have ended. If I, as a trans individual, had just gotten offended (and I was) and jumped down the gentlemen’s throat he wouldn’t have learned anything, not only that I would look like a psychopath. On the second time around I could have stated more clearly “What you are doing is incredibly offensive to me.” This could have opened up a conversation right then and there… or since I didn’t know this person it could have resulted in a “Look if you’re offended maybe you shouldn’t be wearing skirts, maybe you shouldn’t try to stand out.”
The third time I found myself doing the same thing that other people do when they have questions about me, they turn to my closest confidants. I could have directly responded to the gentleman but the first two times didn’t work so a third time seemed a waste. Luckilly the person in question was very apologetic, he had no idea he was actually offending me, and the situation was diffused. I could have used the phrase “I’m offended.” As a standup comic I understand that when I try to make a joke I run the risk of offending. It is however the responsibility of the person attributing a nickname to understand where the line between a simple joke and offense is and where to stop.
My Hypothetical Genitals
Because many cis folks don’t want to offend a trans individual, they have a tendency to ask my partner, my airship crew, my closest friends, or basically anyone who I might have talked to for five minutes at a time about my deepest and darkest secrets; particularly the state of my genitalia. To answer any questions up front the state of my genitalia is WONDERFUL, thanks for asking! Seriously, however, I am in an incredibly committed, monogamous, relationship and therefore my genitalia is only the business of myself, my partner… and maybe a physician if something were to go wonky. How are my hypothetical genitals affecting your day at all?
At this very same token I am an open book, I tell people this all the time. If you have a question about me, my journey, hell even my genitalia, I’ll tell you the answer. I can tell someone that to their face and they will still walk up and ask my partner, friends, etc and ask deeply personal questions about me. “How long has she been doing this? Is she on hormones? What’s up with… her… downstairs?” That’s one hell of a question to ask a person about themselves, let alone to put that burden on another person’s friends.
When people actually ask me questions, I would say my favorite reaction I get from people is when they finally get the nerve up to ask me, I give them a very straightforward answer, and they respond with “Oh, well, um I didn’t actually expect you to respond.”
REALLY?! Were you expecting me to punch you in the face? To storm off? Were you hoping that if you asked me this deeply personal question I would storm off and you could sit in the seat I was in? I wouldn’t walk up to you and say, “Hey…. So you got a penis or what?” To the same token, asking a trans person you just met about their genitals is awkward for EVERYONE, and not every trans person deals with awkward or personal questions like I do.
Most Everyone Say Cheese!
It’s an incredibly vapid example but one of the biggest indicators that I am “different,” in the community is when people want to take pictures of me… or don’t. There are definitely some sketchy photographers at cons. Less so at Steampunk cons but they exist. There are many photographers that will take my picture because they like what I’m going for, or they’ll take it because they are in favor of GLBTQ rights and want to showcase GLBT Steampunk. And then there’s the “pitty pictures.” They’ll wrangle all the cute girls in my group together and leave me out for a few shots, then all of a sudden (as if thinking “Oh crap I’m not a homophobe”) they’ll say “You too,” or “Get in there!” and take one picture. The best are the super-pervy ones who just pull all the bio-females out of my group to get a picture and show zero interest in me. Leaving me with all the guys. Work my ass off to set myself apart from being a man yet always have to play on the boy’s team.
This last bit has less to do with “the way I’m perceived in Steampunk,” and a bit more to do with the way marginalized people in Steampunk are treated in the media. Occassionally, I’ve been invited either to be an extra or to be talked to by a TV network. I am rarely used. My comments are taken sparingly, and I am cut from the final aired interview. I could cry, “Wah wah wah no one wants to see me.” I could look introspectively and say that maybe it’s because I’m still not impressive enough and I need to work harder, the logic being “always be proud of the work I’ve done but never be satisfied, etc.” Except that I have been told by execs that the reason I am being cut is because I would confuse audiences. Because a trans person doesn’t read on camera, they’re confusing to the audience.
I think the main point of this is not “Steampunks are shunning me,” so much as my not being asked by the producers to be in the crowd shots has to do with the media wanting to preserve a Straight, White “Normalcy.” On one such occasion, I was told by a person who is my friend, “Wow, since you do so much work in Theatre I’m surprised you don’t understand where they’re coming from!” I do “understand”; there is a major difference, however, between understanding and acceptance. I understand the notion that to Average Joe American a Steampunk is a fat white dude in a pith helmet with goggles who says “Bully,” and a Steampunk woman is a buxom, corset clad, lady with tiny glasses to show class and tiny hiked up skirts to show ass. This does not mean I accept this notion of a Steampunk.
I understand that a network might assume Average Joe American would see me and think, “Oh so Steampunk is a gay thing.” However, so much of that what the Media, whether accidental or intentionally, is crafting and shaping the view of what is normal for the sake of making sure a straight white audiences can connect to it. The “steampunk community” has NEVER been exclusively straight or white. Steampunk is a construct of loose ideas tied together like a quilt, or a post-apocalyptic flag.
After being publicly outed, Christine Jørgensen had a fairly normal life with many people who loved her and she was able to launch many successful activist talking tours as well as a regular show in New York City and was quoted as saying she gave the sexual revolution “a good swift kick in the pants.” I don’t want my article to be perceived as how Steampunk, cosplay, or the convention circuit or for that matter the Media are evil and angry and hate trans folks. That’s not the case at all.
I want people to be able to look to some of these examples as experiences that I as “The most prominent trans individual in Steamnpunk,” have had and can impart to you. There’s still a lot of room for growth from the fans and ESPECIALLY from the media but the capacity for change exists. We just need to be mindful of the fact that we as trans individuals are not looking to be treated differently or for that matter the same. You show respect, you’ll receive respect. I just hope, even if it’s not me, a trans individual can break through the media’s glass ceiling and show there is a trans population in Steampunk and that it is equally and interesting as the cis-steam we’re tired of seeing. Someone just needs to give Steampunk a good swift kick in the trousers from time to time.
A list of Transgender Terminology by Transequality.org
GLAAD’s Transgender Resources
Human Right’s Commission’s “Transgender Americans: A Handbook for Understanding”
Ashley Rogers, or commonly known in the Steampunk community as Lucretia Dearfour, earned a Bachelor’s of English Literature and Theatre at Fitchburg State College, is an alumna of the Playwriting Summer Intensive Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, has had her work performed throughout the country. Ashley was also the Third Runner up in the Miss Trans New England Pagent in 2012. Ashley has written articles for Beyond Victoriana and Steampunk Magazine Online, has been on camera talent and a blogger for Nerdcaliber.com and Dogtoonmedia, and featured in the Frenchy and The Punk Music video for “House of Cards,” as well as on TLC’s “Young, Broke and Beautiful.” She was one of the founding members of The Wandering Legion but currently is in charge of “The Copper Claw.“